Running the Gauntlet

Just a short walk and she would accomplish the goal. The rich bitch had sent her coat out with Genie to get it repaired. However, Genie had gotten off the bus one stop too soon. She still had a few blocks to go before she could round the corner to the furrier’s so she plowed ahead, trying not to feel stupid. Her employer had given her such explicit directions. For a trip to the furrier, that is.

Genie headed for the edge of the “hood.” Not yet spring, the sound of Genie’s footsteps echoed on the concrete. They sounded cold. The gray air had a snap to it. A bite.

The rich bitch was what Genie called her employer only in private. The employer was a nice enough woman, polite anyway. A way too slim and way too soft-spoken woman with two small children, and Genie helped her with a variety of chores. She even helped the woman with her own children after they came dutifully home from their very private grade schools. The woman’s fur coat shimmered. The wrap must completely envelope her employer, Genie realized. Completely swallow her every curve and tender bone.

“Hey!” came a voice hooting from a side street down to the right. “Hey, sister!” Genie caught sight of the car out of the corner of her eye, but willed herself not to turn back and look. In fact, her backbone went almost rigid. Genie knew the car had pulled up alongside. It was following her. Genie kept her eyes straight ahead. She willed herself to keep on walking. Her heels rang like hooves—a staccato tap, tap, tap.

Genie felt the car pull closer. An attempt at a muscle car, it was full of rust. One window was actually covered with plastic and duct tape! Genie raised her chin. She threw her strides out longer. She knew instinctively that she absolutely must not act like some little girl, lost in a deep, dark wood.

The jacked-up car wheezed and rattled. The driver cranked up the radio, and the music beat to a deep, deep bass. No real sound system, no sense of style. Just a raw ride. Genie pulled the fur closer.

A voice groaned, “Momma, sister, baby!” Then a rider’s hands banged wildly at the side of the jalopy, crazy drums. So there were two of them at least, then, inside the car.

The under hair of the fur felt soft and warm, then almost wet against Genie’s arm. The outer hairs gleamed shiny and long. Sharp. They glistened dark like needles on a moonlit night. Genie tossed her own hair and quickened the pace. She became business-like. No use in running. The damn coat would have tripped her up anyway.

Genie dodged the reach of the hands, but caught sight of the body lunging from the car. The twisted face sent out loud smacking kisses in the direction of her back. “Have mercy, Momma.” Not yet spring, weeds still poured from the broken sidewalks in this neighborhood. Weeds that died right here in the cracks where they’d been born. The man’s damp kisses turned to drunken laughter before the car roared away.

Genie breathed more easily, but her eyes measured the distance to the corner. No more side streets, but she tried to take in the whole picture. The leaning buildings and the space between the buildings. The alleys, the recesses. The rich woman had given Genie directions about the coat; in turn, Genie was to give them to the furrier. Her employer had explained in detail the repairs to be done, had indicated that a ticket should be gotten in return for the coat.

The furrier, at this moment, must be locked securely inside his shop up ahead. A furrier, of course, surrounded by furs. Silver furs, gray furs, dark brown, snow white and velvety furs, and Genie had been told that some animals even produced pelts in smoky shades of blue. Blues believed by some to have a sort of mystical quality.

The next car slipped up alongside her, as if only a breath away. Like a prowler, the luxurious old sedan was long and sleek. The owner had evidently gone to great lengths to return the old Cadillac to its original glory. The entire length of the car had been “detailed.” Shades of brown and red-flecked graphics covered the car, front to rear. Genie caught side of a wood-grained steering wheel and velvet seats. Here was a man who took pride in “his ride.”

Genie pulled the fur toward her too lightly-clad sheet, her breasts. She realized she’d ducked her head, and so pulled it back up again. Her eyes narrowed in response to the low, throaty voice emanating from the car’s cushioned interior. “Mercy, mercy, what have we here?”

The throbbing tones made the hair on the back of Genie’s neck stand on end. She pictured an animal flashing silver through a glad in a deep wood. Genie could imagine the fur of wolves whose hair was so thick that a hand like her own could disappear knuckle deep in a mane around the animal’s muscled neck. The music throbbed.

Since she’d begun her job, Genie had hated how the rich woman’s smile was so deferential—even toward her own children, much less her own husband. The woman’s expression was always either timid or anxious. Genie also hated that the children did not take care of their things, but threw them everywhere. Actually, they did not seem to realize how many pairs of shoes or articles of clothing they had. The two did not play with all their toys and games, of course. No, both the little boy and little girl sat and watched big-screen T.V. for hours. Genie had even begun to notice that the rich man came home always tired. He was a man worn prematurely gray, a man momentarily distracted by golf or a tennis game after work, but bent on that martini afterward.

The long, low car stalked Genie with a hushed sound. The engine reverberated. She could smell cologne. The fins sliced by, then swooped and wheeled as if to circle back. In that instant, Genie slipped on the coat.

She had been saving her money for college. Unlike so many her own age, Genie actually wanted to become a teacher. She wanted to stand in front of students and write on the board. She had envisioned asking students up front to solve experiments and equations, but she would help them, not humiliate them.

The classic, long sedan following Genie had not only fins, but tail lights. Elaborate, antique tail lights, long and pointed like teeth. The lights shone in the sun. They glowed red like blood. Genie resisted the urge to freeze.

Minks were supposed to move fast and fight mean. Ermine came from the hard, icy plains of Russia or Siberia, didn’t they? Or was that the rich, dark sable? What did a chinchilla look like? Did these animals fight while dying? Did they dig their claws into the earth as they turned to face their enemies?

The car slowed to follow her again, and then slipped by like the slice of a knife. Genie resisted the urge to shiver, but still had to concede that perhaps a low rider who “sought respect on the streets” had a point. Why not give her future students thick pieces of chalk, all in bright colors—red, royal blue, yellow-green, and magenta. Why not ask them, not to analyze, but to create? Why disappear easily from the face of the earth?

Genie almost bumped into the body crouched just around the brick-lined corner. Did one have to become a predator in order not to be preyed upon? Use or be used? Genie thought of her employer’s husband yammering on about fair market gains.  Or had that been fair market games?

As the body uncoiled toward her, Genie chose not to fight or flee. She danced. She whirled out of reach. The fur like shimmering silver-blue sky draped around her shoulders. Genie turned in a circle, out, and away.

“You charge money, do you?” came the question. The breath was far too close, too heavy. A lapping tongue.

“You bet I do!” Genie tossed over her shoulder. She snapped, “Top dollar for the likes of you.”

She felt immediately sorry for putting someone down, but hard to believe that some animals were actually bred just to produce. Then certain animals were actually mated on the basis of and for the sole purpose of giving up their skins. One to another. What a soul-less business!

Genie dove headfirst into the first open door. Bells clanged and the furrier raised his eyes from his work. He eyed the coat she wore. The furrier had been raptly stitching one length of fur, one skin to another. He wore thick glasses and sported a frosted moustache himself. Supple pelts lay across his lap. The furrier eyed Genie’s whole body as she shed the coat for him. He stitched carefully, and he eyed her inch-by-inch.

Genie ignored him. She didn’t care what the furrier reported to her employers either. She’d saved practically enough money for school and figured she’d go ahead and get herself to the campus and then worry about some other way to earn the rest.

As to a career in teaching, Genie suddenly found herself with the mad urge to lead students into the streets. Why, she’d encourage them to paint all over the walls. She wanted each student to leave a flamboyant splash, maybe even a revolutionary mural. Paint whole buildings as if tall cliffs full, whole cities full of art! An art teacher was what Genie decided she’d be. Okay, so she wouldn’t get to be rich. What Genie wanted was to make a difference on this earth. Not a bundle.

The furrier handed her a receipt. Genie dutifully pocketed the all-important slip of paper. Back to her employers then, and time for her to explain, “Time to go,” meaning time to escape.

“We could use you a little longer. Name your price. What would you like?” was what she knew richer couple would try.

“Maybe a wrap in a nice polyester,” was what Genie felt tempted to reply. A small private joke to herself.

Tonight though, Genie wanted to relax. To enjoy; that is, to escape into sky. She planned to venture up to the top of the penthouse the big “They” of the city owned and turn her curved throat to the sky. Grateful to escape the grasp of another day, this girl was going to sit and count the stars, one by magical flashing one. Then she’d practice howling. A howl that soared toward the haloed moon.